This is a comparative book report from my final year of high school. Even without familiarity with the two books, the central tenets are strong enough that they can stand on their own.
A Man's Life is a Boy's Death
Childhood is for many a period of boundless joy and adventure, a time suffused with the bliss that comes with carefree existence under the vigilant eyes of a parental guardian. Growing up is the transition from ward to watcher, an experience that can be a crucible not to be wished upon one's most acrimonious enemy, and it is during this interval that one must strive assiduously to retain as much of childhood as possible in the face of the ineluctable advance to maturity, a corruption which must be opposed if one is to preserve any vestige of one's youth beyond pale and meaningless memories. Adulthood is not a progression toward perfection, but rather a dissolution of the virtues of the child, and it is only the child within who can redeem the adult.
The transformation undergone from child to adult is a major subject of both The Reivers by William Faulkner and Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon. Each novel documents events integral to the maturation of its main character. Faulkner is rather truculent in his condemnation of adults and the adult world while McCammon is more chary with his judgement, and implies that there is no stigma attached to adulthood provided that some quantity of the "magic" of childhood is conserved. In general terms, however, both authors agree that it is the intrinsic child who redeems the external adult.
Faulkner’s The Reivers focuses on eleven-year-old Lucius Priest's journey of discovery into the tenderloin of the world; a journey which, by the novel‘s conclusion, places him on the precipice of adulthood. Lucius condemns the entire voyage as being prompted by personified "Non-virtue" and describes himself and his associates as the beneficiaries of this profligate entity. Lucius witnesses a deluge of evils during his voyage, and he himself seems to be the only bastion of virtue, though he believes his supply to be tainted and dwindling. This perdition begins at the first hint of the impending journey to Memphis and into adulthood.
Boon Hogganbeck, a stable-hand and the story's prime representative of the adult world, suggests that Lucius join him on the trip to Memphis in the automobile owned by Lucius' grandfather. Boon is unaware of the boy's already incipient desire to make off with the vehicle, and thus would believe that his efforts to convince the boy to join in the surreptitious voyage would result in the corruption of a child. This is hardly indicative of any virtue in maturity. Non-virtue, through Boon, offers Lucius the "bright rewards of sin and pleasure" (William Faulkner, The Reivers, p. 53). Lucius accepts the offer, and in his efforts to effect the journey, he learns to lie for his personal benefit. Children, he says, "lie rather for pleasure than for profit" (p. 53), and he realizes that his lies and his position as Boon's leader have "matured [him] terrifyingly since [the] clock struck two minutes ago" (p. 53). Thus, maturation is evinced by deceit. Lucius portentously fears that "it [has] only begun; that there [will] be no end to… the lies" (p. 64), and this realization is his first step toward adulthood. Once Lucius chooses to cross the threshold into the full depravity of the world, his childhood is forsaken. As Boon says when they remove the car from its shed for the journey, "It's too late now" (p. 67).
The dissolution engendered by maturity is apparent in all of the adult characters presented in The Reivers. Ned, another stable-hand, sneaks along for the trip to Memphis, and then relinquishes the automobile in payment for a relative's gambling debts with a stolen race-horse as his only hope for regaining the vehicle. Boon, Lucius' subservient adult, allows the boy to board in a brothel while the man attends to his own licentious affairs. The owner of the brothel is a gambler, and all of the prostitutes wallow in their own dissipation. Butch, a local deputy, is concerned only with his own lascivious desires. Sam Caldwell, the railway worker who enables the transport of the horse to the race track, is generally perceived as a virtuous and amicable man, but the operation he facilitates is clandestine and illegal, and he is only involved because of his relationship with a prostitute. All the adults are corrupt, and any aid from them is a result of Non-virtue's intercession. Lucius determines that, in the adult world, "one who serves Virtue works alone… [but] pledge yourself to Non-virtue and the whole countryside teems with volunteers to help you" (p. 143). Lucius sees that survival in the adult world requires a pledge of servitude to Non-virtue. Yet his inherent child still resists the world's temptations.
Otis, the fifteen-year-old relation of one of the prostitutes, is symbolic of maturity's corruption of childhood. Otis possesses vast knowledge of the dark side of the world, while Lucius, still a child, is completely unaware of what a prostitute is or that he is residing within a brothel until Otis informs him of the facts. Otis represents the paradox of growing up, for he carries the debauched mind of an adult in the body of what appears to be a child. This is almost the definition of adolescence. Otis has been quick to forsake all of childhood and embrace the profligacies of the world. He says that he "[thinks] about all that time [he] wasted in Arkansas before anybody ever told [him] about Memphis" (p. 142) and thus condemns his childhood as time wasted. He has renounced all that is innocent in favour of the mature concerns for wealth and power. And just as Otis has found himself corrupted by adult life, so too has Lucius been affected by what he has witnessed. By the time the true nature of the brothel is revealed, Lucius has "gone too far [in his realizations of the world's corruptions] to stop" (p. 156), and his former self who knew nothing of horse-thieving, gambling and prostitution was "another Lucius Priest" (p. 156). Growing up for Lucius is nothing but a forfeiture of the virtues of childhood, and he fears that each pristine grace is going to be replaced by mature debauchery.
Childhood is often described as a time of innocence. According to Faulkner, however, childhood depends not so much on innocence but on the inability and lack of incentive to commit the crimes that the mind may concoct.
When grown people speak of the innocence of children, they don’t really know what they mean. Pressed, they will go a step further and say, Well, ignorance then. The child is neither. There is no crime which a boy of eleven has not envisaged long ago. His only innocence is, he may not yet be old enough to desire the fruits of it, which is not innocence but appetite; his ignorance is, he does not know how to commit it, which is not ignorance but size (p. 46).
Childhood innocence is, therefore, according to Faulkner, not so much dependent on a lack of knowledge, but rather on a lack of incentive for evil. Otis is, by this definition, an adult, since he knows full well the benefits of mischief. One cannot return to innocence once one realizes the potential profit that exists in deceit. Maturation is thus irrevocable. As the seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan wrote, childhood is a "Dear, harmless age" and adolescence "the short, swift span / Where weeping virtue parts with man" (Henry Vaughan, "Childhood").
At the conclusion of his journey, Lucius laments the perceived loss of his childhood. He fears that "something [has] been wasted, thrown away, spent for nothing" (p. 300). The concept of this loss frightens him. Lucius also learns that one component of adulthood is having to live with the mistakes made in life. His grandfather aphoristically states that "a gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences" (p. 302). There is no parental figure who will castigate the wayward adult and thus simplify the process of coming to terms with one's own guilt. Each adult must confront his own demons without any external assistance. But despite the reign of Non-virtue in his surroundings, Lucius has followed the course of Virtue. He perceives himself to be tainted, but, in fact, he has retained the most important components of childhood while still growing to maturity. He does not yield to hate, lust, moral decay or even greed. He does not even seem to bear Otis any significant ill will; if he does, he never mentions it. It would seem that, whatever is required in order to retain youth, the has clung tenaciously to it, since he never does succumb to all the depravity that he witnesses and instead changes the world where he can so that it emulates his innocence.
In Boy's Life, McCammon provides a more general definition of childhood. He refers to the magic of the child and how it is necessary to retain it as an adult. The story focuses on the eleventh and twelfth years of Cory Mackenson, the definitive boy, and his growing up in the small Alabama town of Zephyr. McCammon is less cynical than Faulkner in regard to adults, but still advocates the ubiquitous need for and the universal presence of the intrinsic child. McCammon sees potential virtue in any adult, and Cory is told that " No one… ever grows up… Even behind the face of the meanest man in the world is a scared little boy trying to wedge himself into a corner where he can't be hurt" (Robert R. McCammon, Boy's Life, p. 225). McCammon stresses the need for this retention of childhood in order to create a whole adult. An angry and bitter adult is little more than a child who has lost his or her magic.
The characters in Boy's Life are far less dissolute than those featured in The Reivers, but it is only because many of these individuals have retained the essential components of the child. Cory's father has not forgotten childhood; he can recall that his occupations of choice were "first man on Venus… or a rodeo rider… or a detective" (p. 13). Marcus Lightfoot, a laboriously slow-talking fix-it man, has more of a child-like fascination with and affinity for machinery than any trained skill. However, Dick Moultry and Mr. Hargison, two Klan members who attempt to blow up the newly established Civil Rights Museum, have no recollection of their youth. One element intrinsic to childhood is a certain innocence of perception, as is stressed in both books. Neither Lucius nor Cory is at all prejudiced or racist, and each makes personal queries into the logic of such thoughtless animosity.
Just as for Lucius, Cory's maturation also involves witnessing the face of depravity. It is only after the boy discovers his grandfather's illicit gambling tendencies that his grandfather is forced to acknowledge him as a legitimate human being. "We knew each other", Cory states (p. 227), and it is the child's recognition of the dissolution in the man that enables this link.
It is possible to conserve the vital elements of childhood, but it is a struggle. Cory himself, in his later life, says that he has "tried [his] damnedest not to get old" (p. 566); he has refused to relinquish the feeling of "what it meant, to be the bossee instead of the bosser" (p. 566). Although he may have slipped occasionally, he has persevered. It is when a parent forgets the past that he or she becomes a soulless entity bent on shackling the heart of its offspring.
Cory is warned repeatedly of the paramount importance of preserving the magic of the child. It is specious to believe that one might mature simply by renouncing all that was and embracing a cold and obdurate world; rather, one must learn from one's past and cling tenaciously to its teachings. The insight of childhood cannot be regained once it is discarded, "and once you burn the magic things or cast them out in the garbage… you become a beggar for magic again" (p. 320). This statement comes from a purportedly insane man, Vernon Thaxter, who has a propensity for meandering naked in the streets of Zephyr and who enjoys childish feasts of hamburger patties with buttered popcorn and cake batter. Vernon is representative of the child-like adult, just as Otis is the paradigm of the overly mature child. Vernon has a vast capacity for trenchant perception, as it is he who pieces together the first cogent elements of the solution to Zephyr's murder mystery. It is also he who recognizes the importance of the child within the adult, but who has also gone to extremes in order to retain his spiritual youth. Ease of perception is another important and oft-lost component of the child. For example, Lucius in The Reivers quickly perceives the pith of Boon's garrulous excuses and explanations as to why nothing on the Memphis trip should be recounted, and restates the burly stable-hand’s two-page exposition in a single sentence. "What you mean is, whatever I see on this trip up here, not to tell Boss or Father or Mother or Grandmother when we get back home" (The Reivers, p. 105). Most adults cannot see to the core of a matter with such clarity.
Vernon's sentiments are bolstered in a dream sequence following the death of Cory's friend, Davy Ray. In it, McCammon takes direct control of the narrative in order to convey a particularly vivid point to the reader. From the mouth of a self-described man of the world issue the words, "Don't be in a hurry to grow up. Hold on to being a boy as long as you can, because once you lose that magic, you're always begging to find it again" (Boy's Life, p. 471). The repetition of the concept indicates its significance to the author's work. The emphasis on caution in maturation is particularly distinct in this instance, and it is apparent that prudence is required lest one rashly cast away that which might be required in order to form a whole adult. An adult without an inherent child is a truly corrupt piece of work.
Cory has no need to defend himself against the debaucheries of the world as Lucius does, and he struggles instead to retain the magic of youth. It is this magic that is the life-energy of every child and the distinguishing component of an ideal adult. All the legends of wonder and mystery must be preserved: from Snowdown the enigmatic white stag to the road haunted by Midnight Mona to the gnashing jaws of Old Moses the river serpent, each memory must remain vivid and alive. Lucius, on the other hand, despite his belief in the inexorable nature of his descent into Faust-like degradation, must resist the temptations that maturity holds before him. He refuses an offer of beer because "[he] promised [his] mother [he] wouldn't" drink alcohol (The Reivers, p. 107). He does this in spite of dogged encouragement to imbibe. The contrast between Lucius and Otis is particularly pronounced when Lucius declares simply, "you don't take things" (p. 218) after it becomes known that Otis has stolen from the brothel. The very concept of theft seems to be unfathomable to him despite all that he has witnessed and Otis’ oft-proclaimed proclivity to profiteer in whatever manner possible. Lucius has, thus, retained some element of his own childhood. He has not succumbed to the adult debauchery that surrounds him, but has rather become increasingly steadfast in his belief that the ways of the child are the right ones. Faulkner’s Virtue is similar to McCammon's magic: each holds within it the power to preserve the child in every human being. These elements must be present in order for any adult to be redeemable.
The power of childhood, whether conceptualized as innocent Virtue or mysterious magic, may redeem even those dissolute adults who live barren of both forces. A particularly prominent example of salvation through childhood is the case of Miss Corrie, one of the prostitutes in The Reivers. Lucius physically assails Otis for his remarks that impugn Miss Corrie's chastity as well as for his attempts to exploit the woman's position. Otis draws a knife, but even the weapon cannot avert Lucius' fury. This act establishes Lucius as not only a redeemer but also as a castigator of the wicked. Corrie becomes aware of the impetus for Lucius' outburst and is moved by his defence of her honour, particularly since she believed herself to be totally degraded. It is when she promises Lucius that she will renounce prostitution that her ascension begins. Corrie had changed her real name from Everbe Corinthia in order to make herself more appealing to customers at the brothel. Lucius' approval of her true name allows her to realize that there is no shame in revealing one's true nature. "Yes," she says. "That's what it can be now" (p. 218). With these words, Everbe accepts herself and regains some of the innocence and magic that she had forsaken when she was given over to a brothel in her youth. Thus, the child may heal the adult. But the pithy sagacity of childhood cannot be duplicated by any but a child. It is not within the capacity of an adult to infuse the youthful with innocence once it is lost. This can only be achieved by the child.
Debauchery beckons each person as he or she approaches the final echelons of childhood, and it is essential for each person at this time to strive to retain as much of unalloyed youth as possible. Dissolution is a rampant temptation when one is growing up, and one must remain vigilant. The essence of youth, be it Virtue or magic, must be preserved, for it is only through the intrinsic child that an adult can evade corruption. The adult grows from the child, and there is no element of the adult that cannot be found in youth, and, in fact, it is the adult who is more limited. Only a child is capable of healing the child within; only the innate sagacity of innocent youth can perceive the depths of the soul with clarity; only a child can resist the snares of the world, though temptation may call importunately. The adult has no power over the child, for the child’s virtue is the purity that is concomitant with the lack of motive for evil and the complete disregard of personal gain. This innocence cannot be regained for it is tainted by the simple acknowledgement of its existence. Vaughan describes childhood as "An age of mysteries… which angels guard, and with it play – / Angels! Which foul men drive away" (Henry Vaughan, "Childhood"). It is the man who chases all virtue away from the boy. The world offers copious rewards to lure one from the blissful pool of childhood and out into the cold air of adulthood. The instant one can peer back in time's pool and witness what innocence was, childhood has been lost. The adult's way is that of analysis and dissection; but childhood defies observation and calculation. It is lived.
Faulkner, William. The Reivers. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited, 1962.
McCammon, Robert R. Boy's Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991.
Warhaft, Sydney and Woodbury, John, ed. English Poems, 1250-1660. Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, 1963.